Why is science doing so poorly in the fight against cancer?

We all know that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the outcome to change is a mark of insanity. It's time for some fresh ideas on cancer research.

As thousands of women line up to run Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life this summer, few will be aware of how poorly science is doing in the fight against cancer. It’s not something anyone likes to talk about. But now, after years of silence, two dissenters have come along at once.

Few of us are untouched by cancer. If it is not a personal experience, we know someone whose life has been, or is being, affected by this most hideous of life’s processes. Everyone wants to do something about this scourge of modern living. That was why, in 1971, President Nixon declared war on cancer. He had all the confidence of a man whose national space agency had just left human footprints on the moon. Making an impact on cancer has proved much harder, however. We are now better at combating childhood leukaemia than we were, but few other cancers have succumbed to science.

In 1950, cancer killed 193 per 100,000 people. In 2004, the numbers were hardly changed: 186. Many billions of dollars and 54 years of research had saved seven lives out of every 100,000. It’s hardly a success story, especially when compared with the 63 per cent drop in death rates from cardiovascular disease over the same period. We have made a huge difference by using preventative information – getting people to stop smoking and exercise more, for instance. Curing cancer that has already taken hold, though, remains a matter of battering it with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Those kinds of figures are why, in 2007, the deputy director of the US National Cancer Institute asked Paul Davies to get involved. Davies is a physicist; speaking of his forays into cancer research at a New Scientist event in London this month, he acknowledged the problems of invading other people’s research territory. Nonetheless, he suggests, a fresh set of brains asking dumb questions is not always a bad thing.

So far, the result of his work with other physicists is to suggest that cancer may be an extremely ancient cellular program that creates a secondary, competing organism within the body. Davies sees the program as a genie in the bottle: when something – stress, or some kind of injury to the cell – breaks the bottle, the genie is released. Spending billions on examining cancer cells is like examining the shards of the bottle while ignoring the genie, Davies reckons.

Just as left-field is Maurice Saatchi’s incursion into the cancer arena. The former ad executive is even less (formally) qualified than Davies to offer critiques of the cancer establishment, but he is far more belligerent. Watching his wife die of ovarian cancer, Saatchi was struck by what he calls the “medieval” nature of the treatment options currently available. In April, he told the New Statesman of his decision to launch a private member’s bill in the House of Lords in order to give doctors more scope to try innovative unlicensed treatments.

The medical research establishment will no doubt scoff at Saatchi’s call; yet it is not always a bad thing to approach a scientific field with the heart as well as the head. The IVF pioneer Robert Edwards was spurred into action by his friendship with a couple who were unable to have children. Whether or not Davies or Saatchi are ultimately successful in their attempts to regain some ground in our fight against cancer is not really the point. The point is to acknowledge that fresh ideas are required.

We all know that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the outcome to change is a mark of insanity. Let’s end this cancer madness now.

Researchers working at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.